Dear students, a member of the class asked…


This is a post by Catherine Scott.

I am TAing a first year introductory Ecology/Evolution course this semester, and the laboratory exam is coming up on Tuesday. I’m spending a lot of time this weekend emailing the entire class list messages that start, “Dear students, a member of the class asked…” I go on to list the (anonymized) question, and my answer. I copied this technique from a great professor I had for an invertebrate zoology course. As an extremely shy undergraduate student who never once went to an office hour or emailed a professor or TA with a question, I really appreciated this approach.

I email answers to the whole class for two reasons. The first (less important) reason is that it saves me time, because it means I don’t have to reply to emails from multiple students asking similar questions. The second (main) reason is that I think it is only fair that if I provide an answer to one student, the rest of the students should have access to the same information. I try to encourage students to ask questions in class, because if they don’t understand something, chances are someone else has the same question, and it will benefit everyone in the class if I can answer the question and clarify the point. I think the same should apply to emailed questions.

Another idea for fair communication that I like comes from an instructor who taught my second year molecular biology course: online discussion boards to facilitate easy communication between instructors and class members, as well as between students.

Reasons I like this idea:

I assume that many students are hesitant to attend office hours or email instructors like I was. I used to be afraid that my questions were stupid, or that I would be wasting my instructor’s or TA’s time with things I could probably figure out myself if I tried harder. I think that having an online discussion board where students could post questions anonymously1 might encourage some students to ask questions.

If students are asking questions in an online forum where they can see each other’s questions, they might start interacting with one another. Perhaps Student A sees a question posed by Student B, and Student A knows the answer. They can write back (possibly before the instructor/TA has a chance to, saving them time) and in so doing help their colleague, and help themself, through explaining something in writing (teaching others is a great way to study!). Triple win! Even if student A’s answer isn’t correct, the instructor/TA can see the interaction later, and clarify. Now student B gets their answer, and student A realizes that they didn’t understand the concept as well as they thought. Both have learned something. Everyone else in the class can see the question and answer(s) and also benefit.

I am aware that in practice things might not always work as well as I imagine, but I think this is a model worth trying and working at. I made such a discussion board for a first year general biology course I taught, and it didn’t get a whole lot of traffic. But some students did engage with it and find it useful, so I think it was worth it. In the course where I first saw this system being used, the instructor would only accept questions about course content during office hours (nobody ever went) or on the discussion forum. Although I never contributed, I was a grateful lurker, and saw lots of great interactions both among students and between students and the instructor.

I suggested implementing this sort of thing to an instructor for a course I was a TA for a while back. I argued that it wouldn’t take up too much of my time, because not many students come to office hours anyway, so I could spend my office hour and email time answering questions on the online discussion board. However, the instructor thought it was important that the online discussion board should not replace office hours, or individual emailed questions, because they like to “reward” students who take the time to come to office hours or email to ask questions. I really don’t like this idea – that students who “snooze” by not asking questions should lose the opportunity to get the same help as students who do. Not only might some students who genuinely want to learn be too shy to ask questions, some might have perfectly legitimate reasons they can’t make it to scheduled office hours. And if every single student in the class did come to office hours, they would cease to function effectively.

I’m not arguing that online discussion or whole-class emails should replace office hours. I love it when students come to talk to me, I value the discussions we have, and it is also a great way to find out which course concepts are unclear. I use interactions with students in office hours to inform what topics I will review in the next tutorial. What I am arguing is that it is unfair to provide some, but not all, students with answers to questions, just because they feel comfortable firing off an email or coming to ask a question in person.

What do you think? Have you tried online discussion boards? Do you send responses to student questions to the whole class? Are there good reasons NOT to give everyone in the class access to the same information? I would love to hear your thoughts.

1I think it’s worth pointing out (despite n = me) that of the two times I have used online discussion boards as a TA, the time when I could not allow students to post anonymously (because of constraints of the university’s learning management system), I got far fewer students posting to the discussion board.

Catherine Scott runs the blog SpiderBytes, and you can find her on twitter as @Cataranea.

7 thoughts on “Dear students, a member of the class asked…

  1. HI Catherine- I sometimes do what you suggest and indeed, it saves time! I will also sometimes post answers to common questions on a discussion board. It can work well. But you are right in that having ‘multiple’ strategies is important: office hours, email, discussion boards, etc.

    On the topic of discussion boards, i have also noticed that so much depends on the cohort. Some years I have very, very active discussion boards and other years there is nothing… I don’t really understand why this is the case, but I think it is important to note that one strategy may not work one time, but will work another time!

  2. Have you tried Piazza? It’s an online discussion board that allows for anonymous posting. I haven’t used it in my classes, but a number of my colleagues do for many of the same reasons you outline in this post.

  3. Thanks for the comments! I will definitely keep trying discussion boards. No, I haven’t tried Piazza, but will look into it!

  4. I’ll second the suggestion to try Piazza — it was a marked improvement over the clunky discussion boards offered by our in-house course management system. The intro bio course I first used it with had >800 students, and needless to say it was great to have active student participants help to answer questions. A forum requires giving up some control as an immediate filter to what is posted, but on the whole our students moderated each other’s behavior effectively. The few rude “trolling” questions/answers were constructively called out (and edited to more respectful versions by the original poster!) and students gently pointed their peers to course resources when it was clear the asker hadn’t read the syllabus or course website. Just serving as a filter for the latter type of question would have made Piazza well worth it. We also experimented with incentivizing participation on the board — the instructor of the course offered a form of extra credit to students that earned a “good question” or “good answer” endorsement from the instructor or TAs, and the Piazza developers helped us compile a list of those students at the end of the term (a feature that unfortunately doesn’t exist yet). Overall 73% of students logged on at least once, and the typical student viewed 20-25% of the 400+ posts generated over the 10 week term. The average response time to new questions was an amazing 1.1 hours, mostly because of ~10 extremely active student posters.

  5. I evolved a set of techniques for emailing class questions to my zoology students myself. It was very difficult to get students to participate properly at first, then in about 2006 it blossomed into a wonderful interchange, but by 2010 all of my students hand smart-phones and only received emails on their phones where the images, links to videos and elaborate answers were easily glossed over or ignored.
    Techniques such as this must evolve just as quickly as the technology.

  6. I loved online discussion boards for classes, but was often hesitant to post in them unless they allowed anonymous or pseudonymous posting.

  7. Thanks everyone for the comments! It’s great to hear that discussion boards are working well for some folks, and confirmation that at least some students are hesitant to post without the option of anonymity.

    In our last lecture, one of my students mentioned that there is a discussion board for one of their other classes and that the instructor might want to consider using discussion boards for this class in the future. I asked for more detail on how well it works, and this was the response I got from the student:

    “Discussion boards are a great way to interact with everyone in the course outside of class instead of just emailing the Instructor or TAs back and forth. In my other course, the discussion boards on Canvas [our learning management system] are used quite frequently and from what I see no one really has much of an issue with it not being anonymous. I would assume that if someone had an issue with posting on the board they would just email the Instructor directly.

    My biggest compliment about the discussion boards is that they allow every student to see what others are thinking/asking. While you are doing a similar approach right now with your “Dear students” e-mails, the discussion boards would allow us students to maybe answer each others questions or add on to the questions posted.”

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